Jason Longshore had the chance earlier today to interview Fox Sports soccer commentator Rob Stone about the 2018 World Cup, USMNT, MLS and Atlanta United. Rob Stone is FOX’s lead studio host for all of their soccer coverage on the network. As the home of the 2018 World Cup, today was a busy day for Rob as he helmed the coverage of the World Cup Draw this morning.
For U.S. soccer fans, it was a strange morning as it was the first World Cup Draw since 1986 that did not include the United States. I asked Rob what the vibe was like for him without the U.S. involved.
Rob: “I think there was a letdown weeks ago, but we all have a job to do, even if our job is more difficult right now. As a guy who wants to see the U.S. program grow and reach the heights of Argentina and Brazil and Spain and Germany, it stung a little bit that we weren’t able to go deep into the group that the U.S. would be playing in.
But, it’s also a reminder that we have a ways to go and this is a great opportunity now. You have to look at it as an opportunity now to hit that reset button and sort out some issues in order to find out how we come back stronger than ever.
In the end, it’s still the World Cup. It’s still the greatest tournament that’s out there. There’s still going to be tons of motivation with everyone involved with it.”
Every World Cup has its own crop of narratives that emerge. It’s still months away, but I asked Rob what he thinks will be the main storylines coming out of next summer’s tournament.
Rob: “There’s a ton of interesting storylines. One is Russia, Russia as a team and Russia as a country, how they manage and handle the situation. There’s lots of behind the scenes conversations about what Russia is these days and as the World Cup so often does, it highlights some of these issues and then it quickly returns to sport, which is why we’re watching.
Russia was placed into Group A, a really forgiving Group A with two of lowest seeded teams in the tournament. Russia was really given a potential entry into the knockout stages of the tournament.
Another story is Germany. How good is this nation right now? They are the defending champs. Last summer at the Confederations Cup, they essentially sent their JV team and they mauled everybody. Are we looking at an absolute juggernaut? Are we talking about the greatest national team that ever existed?
With so much left to chance at the Draw, some countries come out of it happier than others. I asked Rob which countries came out of it happy and which ones might feel like they have a harder road now.
Rob: “I think Portugal and Spain had a really good draw in Group B. It’s heavy up top but then it dips with Morocco and Iran, so I think those two nations are pretty good through the group stage. In the second round, they get matched up with Group A and the top two teams there are ‘I Don’t Know’ and Uruguay. Portugal and Spain are looking pretty good in Group B.
There’s always a Group of Death. We are contractually obligated to discuss the Group of Death. We can argue that maybe there’s two. There’s Group F, which feels like a Group of Death with Germany, Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. And then you have Group C with France, Peru, and Denmark who sit inside the Top 20 (of the FIFA rankings). I think those are the toughest groups.
Group H, it’s hard to say who is going to come through that. I think Colombia from the second pot is smiling right now, saying, ‘We’ve got a really good draw, we’ve got a really good chance to do what we did a couple of years ago with James Rodríguez.”
A group that jumped out to me was Group D with Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and everyone’s darlings Iceland. I asked Rob who he thought would make it through that one.
Rob: “That’s a tough one, definitely Argentina. When Iceland and Croatia meet, both teams are looking at is the game that they have to win if they want to move on. I think realistically neither are expecting to pull points out of Argentina. I think both are expecting to take care of Nigeria. Teams from the African continent are always that wild card. For decades, we’ve wanted to see that breakthrough nation go really deep and cause that stir. Nigeria is always one of the countries that can be a player, that people want to be a factor. The Super Eagles are coming in with a quiet tone right now though. Looking at it on paper, they are the team expected to cause the least amount of damage.
But you make a good point, there’s a lot of groups that you can make a case for that are at least uncomfortable. The uncomfortable Group D, the uncomfortable Group F. I think that’s something that people wanted to get by placing all of the teams in pots by their FIFA rankings. It levels the playing field a little bit. It gives the top seeds maybe a slightly easier path through to the knockout stage so we can have those wonderful Round of 16 games. There’s a lot of them that are shaping up early on that are really going to attract your attention.”
Part 2 of our conversation covered FOX’s plans for the tournament and how they have been affected by the absence of the USMNT. More to come…